Last modified on October 15, 2021, at 21:52

Wirt Yerger

Wirt Adams Yerger, Jr.

State Chairman of the
Mississippi Republican Party
In office
1956–1966
Preceded by (first modern chairman)
Succeeded by Clarke Reed

Born June 1, 1930
Jackson, Mississippi, USA
Spouse(s) Mary M. Yerger
Children Three children, including:
Wirt Yerger, III

Parents:
Wirt, Sr., and Rivers Applewhite Yerger

Residence Jackson, Mississippi
Occupation Insurance agent

Wirt Adams Yerger, Jr. (born June 1, 1930)[1] is a retired businessman from the capital city of Jackson, Mississippi, who is the founding 20th century state chairman of the Republican Party, a position that he filled for the decade from 1956 to 1966.

Yerger's efforts which re-established a strong Mississippi GOP was bolstered by economic mobility, which businessmen and entrepreneurs symbolized. Contrary to the left-wing "Southern strategy" narrative which alleges that white Southerners became Republicans on the basis of race, the slow trend towards the GOP was largely attributed to economic improvements.

Background

Yerger is a son of Wirt Yerger, Sr. (1901–1974) and Rivers Applewhite Yerger (1904–1991), the latter of which is a native of Columbia in Marion County in southwestern Mississippi. The couple is interred at Greenwood Cemetery in Jackson, along with other family members.[2]

Yerger's younger brother, William Swan Yerger (born 1932), is a retired Hinds County circuit court judge who served from 1997 to 2010.[3] Swan Yerger, as he is known, ran unsuccessfully as a Republican nominee at the age of thirty-one for the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1963 against Democrat William I. S. "Billy" Thompson, the son of Jackson Mayor Allen Cavett Thompson (1906–1980). At the time, Swan Yerger was a staunch critic of unpledged electors, which had carried Mississippi and half of Alabama in the 1960 presidential election.[4]

Yerger is a former insurance agent with the firm Ross & Yerger (founded 1860) in Jackson. He is affiliated with Rotary International, the Chamber of Commerce, and the YMCA. One of the founders of the Fondren Renaissance Foundation, he also operated the Wirt A. Yerger Jr. Foundation, Inc. He and his wife, Mary, have three children, one of whom is the businessman Wirt, III (born c. 1957).[5]

Political life

Winning the chairmanship by one vote

A Yerger led a younger and more vigorous group of conservative entrepreneurs, businesspeople, and attorneys, some having previously been part of the Young Republicans organization, and most the product of increasing urbanization of a still predominantly rural-oriented state. At the age of twenty-six, he was named in his native Jackson as the party's first chairman by the margin of his one vote, his own. Yerger's faction defeated a motion to include segregation in the first party platform,[6] but many of the early Mississippi Republicans, like their Democratic counterparts, were segregationists. In 1957 and 1958, Yerger was placed on the defensive in Mississippi following the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Years later, Yerger said that he and his wife were harassed by segregationists, the kind of treatment also received by civil rights activists, because he was viewed as a threat to "white rule" as the chairman of the party of the president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who intervened in Little Rock. In 1960, the Mississippi GOP declared segregation a "local matter that could best be handled by individual states" and attempted to focus on other matters, such as reapportionment of legislative bodies and local-option liquor elections to replace statewide prohibition, which ended in Mississippi in 1966.[7]

Replacing the Black and Tans

The Mississippi Republican delegations were previously led by Perry Howard, II (pictured above).

Yerger's conservatives, who stressed states' rights, replaced the former Black and Tan contingent, which had governed the state party from Washington, D.C., with the African-American attorney Perry W. Howard, II (1877–1961) as the national committeeman and the past dispenser of the limited federal patronage in the state.[8] At the Republican National Convention in Chicago in 1952, Howard led an all-black delegation pledged not to Eisenhower, but U.S. Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio,[9] a favorite of the conservative forces and known for his opposition to segregation.[10]

In addition to the Yerger and Howard factions, there were two other smaller groups contending for intra-party power, the Lily-White Movement, led by George Lawson Sheldon (1870–1960), a former governor of Nebraska, who had run for governor of Mississippi in 1947 and polled only 2.5 percent of the vote, and the "Democrats for Eisenhower" under E. O. Spencer. Some media had incorrectly identified Yerger as the head of the Lily Whites who had ousted the Black and Tans.[6]

George Sheldon's son, Anson Hoisington Sheldon (1905–1983), also a native Nebraskan and a resident of Washington County, Mississippi, was a member of the Mississippi Republican State Executive Committee from 1944 to 1967, the state chairman from 1948 to 1952, the vice-chairman from 1952 to 1967, and a delegate to the national conventions in 1956 and 1960..[11]

Despite Sheldon's earlier tenure as chairman, the Yerger faction considered him to be the first of the modern state Republican chairmen in Mississippi. Yerger said that his forces represented "the ultimate break with the old-line, racist Southern Democrats who didn't know whether they wanted to be liberal or conservative, but were vocally committed to keeping long-held, highly corrupted power."[12]

Building a party from scratch

Yerger held party positions beyond Mississippi. He was the chairman of the Mississippi delegation to the Republican National Conventions in 1956, 1960, and 1964. In 1960, Yerger he was elected to a four-year term as chairman of the Southern Association of Republican State Chairmen.[13] In 1963, Yerger was named Mississippi chairman of the Draft Goldwater Committee under the national director, Peter O'Donnell, Jr. (born 1924) of Dallas, Texas.[14]

In 1965, Yerger lost a bid to become the national head of the organization of state Republican Party chairmen. His opposition to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a factor in his defeat for that position. Yerger had an altercation with Moderate Republican Charles H. Percy, a defeated candidate for governor of Illinois in 1964 but a successful nominee in 1966 for the U.S. Senate. Percy accepted an invitation to speak before the Mississippi Council on Human Relations, a biracial group sponsored by the Southern Regional Council. Yerger branded the group a "Democratic front" and worked with Illinois Republicans to have Percy's speech scuttled.[8]

Yerger built his state party from scratch. He gained recognition for his chairmanship from the Eisenhower administration and thereafter supported the presidential candidacies of Richard M. Nixon and Barry Goldwater. In April 1961, the first Republican in Mississippi during the Yerger chairmanship, Joe O. Sams, Jr., of Columbus was elected the county attorney of Lowndes County.[15]

The 1963 campaign

In 1963, the Mississippi Republican Party offered candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, Rubel Phillips, a former Democratic member of the Mississippi Public Service Commission, and state Senator Stanford Morse of Harrison County, who challenged Carroll Gartin (1913–1966). Neither Phillips nor Morse reached 40 percent of the vote in the general election, but they paved the way for later Republican candidates who in time won the majority of statewide offices in Mississippi.[16]

In the Phillips-Morse campaign, Yerger was frequently ridiculed as "Squirt" Yerger by the Democratic State Chairman Bidwell Adam, a lawyer from Gulfport who served as lieutenant governor himself rom 1928 to 1932 during the administration of staunch segregationist Theodore Gilmore Bilbo (1877–1947) Adam and outgoing Governor Ross Robert Barnett (1898–1987) employed harsh anti-Republican rhetoric in their determined support for the Democrat Paul Johnson. The pair accused Phillips of being a "turncoat" and then questioned Phillips loyalty to the GOP. Johnson called his rival Phillips "a Adlai Stevenson liberal in Republican outer-garments."[17] Adam accused Phillips and Morse of omitting the word "Republican" from campaign literature in a ploy to confuse voters.[18]

An advertisement in the former Jackson Daily News, now The Clarion-Ledger, linked the Mississippi white Republicans with unpopular scalawags from the era of Reconstruction, a term that Yerger found offensive, as he is a great-grandson of a Confederate Army officer.[10]

With Phillips' defeat, which Bidwell Adam termed an "electrocution," the Democrat telegraphed his state chairman counterpart Yerger to ask: "Will you please advise the date and place you will deliver the funeral oration?"[19]

Vacating the chairmanship

Yerger stepped down as chairman with plans to challenge Democratic U.S. Senator James Eastland in the 1966 general election. In the Phillips-Johnson race, Yerger had accused Eastland of missing twenty-five of fifty-one roll call votes while Eastland was in Mississippi campaigning in 1963 for Paul Burney Johnson, Jr. (1916–1985), the Democrat running against Phillips. Eastland said that his support of Johnson was essential to protect "white rule" in Mississippi. Democratic Chairman Bidwell Adam said that Eastland had a "patriotic duty" to support the state's Democratic nominees.[20] However, Prentiss Walker, the freshman Republican U.S. Representative from Mize, who was elected in the Goldwater sweep of Mississippi, instead ran against Eastland. Walker was the first Mississippi Republican since Reconstruction to win a U.S. House seat. Yerger therefore did not pursue an elected office but later said that Walker's relinquishing of his House seat to pursue a senatorial candidacy was "very devastating" to the Mississippi GOP because the seat returned to the Democrats and was held for decades by Gillespie V. "Sonny" Montgomery (1920–2006) of Meridian, who carried bipartisan support. Walker polled barely a quarter of the vote against Eastland.[20]

Yerger was succeeded as chairman by Clarke Reed, a businessman from Greenville in Washington County, who also served ten years in the post.

The 1967 campaign

In 1967, Phillips mounted his second unsuccessful race for governor, this time against U.S. Representative John Bell Williams of Mississippi's 3rd congressional district, who had supported Goldwater in 1964 and was stripped in 1965 of House seniority for doing so. Sensing that he could not run to the "right" of Williams, as he had tried to do with Johnson in 1963, Phillips shed his former segregationiost image and adopted a more moderate stance similar to that employed unsuccessfully by Williams' Democratic runoff rival, state Treasurer and subsequent Governor William Forrest Winter (born 1923).

Later years

In 2009, the central committee of the Mississippi GOP recognized Yerger's lifetime achievements by naming him "chairman emeritus."[13] He is also chairman emeritus of Ross & Yerger Insurance.[5]

In January 2010, his active political career long behind him, Yerger published with Joseph L. Maxwell, III, a lengthy memoir entitled, A Courageous Cause: A Personal Story of Modern Republicanism's Birth from 1956 to 1966 in Mississippi.[12]

In 2012, Yerger was an elector for former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and later a U.S. Senator from Utah in the presidential election but did not cast his vote and was replaced by an alternate. All Mississippi electors voted for Romney, who despite his weak campaign, carried Mississippi over the Democrat incumbent, Barack H. Obama.

References

  1. Wirt Yerger. Mylife.com. Retrieved on June 30, 2020.
  2. Rivers Applewhite Yerger. findagrave.com. Retrieved on June 30, 2020.
  3. Philip Thomas (June 1, 2009). Hinds Circuit Judge Swan Yerger announces retirement in 2010. Mississippi Litigation Review. Retrieved on June 30, 2020.
  4. Billy Hathorn, "Challenging the Status Quo: Rubel Lex Phillips and the Mississippi Republican Party (1963-1967)," The Journal of Mississippi History XLVII, November 1985, No. 4, p. 254.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Wirt Yerger, Jr.. cfgreaterjackson.org. Retrieved on May 10, 2014; material no longer accessible on-line.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Yerger recounts history of state GOP in new book. onlinemadison.com (January 21, 2011). Retrieved on June 30, 2020.
  7. "Challenging the Status Quo," p. 241.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Ronni Mott (May 12, 2009). Yerger's Revisionist ‘Lily White' History. The Jackson Free Press. Retrieved on June 30, 2020.
  9. Murray N. Rothbard (June 21, 2011). Swan Song of the Old Right. mises.org. Retrieved on June 30, 2020.
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Challenging the Status Quo," p. 248.
  11. Sheldon, Anson Hoisington. The Political Graveyard. Retrieved on June 30, 2020.
  12. 12.0 12.1 A Courageous Cause. LifeStory Publishing. Retrieved on June 30, 2020. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 Jere Nash and Andy Taggert. Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2006' (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006), pp. 41-42.
  14. Thomas Byrne Edsall with Mary D. Edsall, "A Pivotal Year," ecfs.org; material no longer on-line.
  15. "Challenging the Status Quo," p. 242.
  16. "Challenging the Status Quo," pp. 242-243.
  17. "Challenging the Status Quo," p. 244.
  18. "Challenging the Status Quo," p. 245.
  19. "Challenging the Status Quo," pp. 256-257.
  20. 20.0 20.1 "Challenging the Status Quo," p. 256.